A few weeks ago, we shared some thoughts on the pervasive stain of racism in our country and how it continues to claim the lives, health, and well-being of Black men and women through countless inequitable means. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of police - coupled with the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery weeks before - brought forth a boiling point in the midst of a global pandemic which was already wreaking havoc on communities of color in a disproportionate way. Like so many of you, we were left reeling at how little has changed in our country and its treatment of Black bodies. The entire team took a few days off to try and process, learn, protest, and to have tough conversations with family and friends who were seeing things differently.
When we got back together at the end of the week to chat about our thoughts and actions we were personally taking, it became clear that we were all learning new things not only about systemic racism but about ourselves. A few of us wanted to try and share some of those thoughts here with you. You've seen us at events, met us at the LA flagship, and chatted with us at various Coffee Times. Just as we'd happily talk to you about other things that are going on in our lives, we felt that it was important to share what is on our hearts right now with respect to racism. We have upcoming initiatives that are meant to center and uplift Black voices and we are excited to share about them soon. But change begins within, and we wanted to talk a little bit about where we are at, what we're thinking about, and what has been helping us to learn and grow. If you're reading this, thank you for giving us the opportunity to share our perspectives. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you.
No justice. No peace. The chant that has been ringing across America for the past few weeks has also rung true in my life. I wake up each morning with a deep sense of despair, a hopelessness that is difficult to shake. With every story that I read of another Black person being murdered without repercussion, with every video that I watch of police officers attacking unarmed protestors, with every article that I read from authors who have studied this issue for years, the chasm feels deeper and wider and more impossible to overcome. Racism, but especially racism against Black people, is engrained in the very foundation of this country and pervasive in so many of its institutions.
I shudder when I think back on my run-ins with police during my youth. Not because of the racist remarks and verbal abuse that I endured, but because I know that the incidents in which I was ticketed or simply let go with a warning are the same scenarios that get Black Americans unnecessarily arrested, beaten or shot. How different my life could’ve looked if the cop had searched me, instead of just giving me a curfew ticket and letting me walk home. His decision could’ve altered my trajectory forever. How many young Black women and men make the same mistakes as I did as a teenager but aren’t given the same chances to correct them? How many aren’t even making a mistake at all, whether they’re playing with a toy at a park or shopping at Walmart or sleeping in their own bed when their lives are snatched from them?
The thought that simply having dark skin is enough to get you killed without repercussion in this country leaves me with a deep sense of helplessness. As a father, I can’t fathom having to raise my two sons with that constant, real fear that they could be taken from me without warning, provocation or justification.
I don’t know where we go from here. Since the murder of George Floyd, police officers have taken over 100 more lives, even while thousands of people across the country have flooded into the street to cry, shout, and plead for our law enforcement to stop killing the very people they are sworn to protect.
Yet, I do feel the tides changing. I see minds being opened up to new ideas of what our society could and should look like. I see politicians sensing the urgency of the moment and using their power to enact real policy changes. Most encouragingly, I see people digging in for the long haul, knowing that the shifts we want to see in our country will not come in a matter of days, weeks or even months, but who are willing to fight until we get there.
-Johan Lam Sr.
Two of my best friends are Black and one of them I’ve known since we were both 11 years old. Growing up with him I remember noticing differences in our lives, but not knowing how to explain them or be able to formulate the right questions to ask. As we’ve gotten older, the more I’ve realized how unjust our country is and how much we sweep under the rug. I’ve ignored all of the signs of racism that exist in this country simply because they have not had an impact on me. I always thought that because I have Black friends, it meant that I support Black people. I was wrong and I realize that I was only touching the surface of the issues that Blacks suffer every day. The truth is that I will never know what my friends have gone through and that I will never truly understand the pain of Black people, but I will no longer pretend that they don’t exist. Both of my friends are fathers now and I vow to keep fighting for their boys to grow up in a country where the odds aren’t stacked against them because of the color of their skin.
One book that I've been reading recently has been Eddie S. Glaude Jr.'s "Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul." The book has taught me that change will only come when we can reimagine our government. Just as technology changes year after year, our government and our idea of democracy must also evolve as time goes on. Not only does this change need to come from government, but a cultural shift is also necessary in order for Black people to receive the same treatment as White people. We can no longer be willfully ignorant of the racism that exists every day. Every choice we make plays a role in the value gap that states that White lives matter more than others - so we must be vigilant. The movement starts with us.
Anything I attempt to write about systemic racism in the US has already been more eloquently handled by a vast number of writers of color, so I’m going to use this opportunity to address my fellow White Americans.
Despite the fact that my mother is 2nd generation Mexican, most people would consider me white without giving it a second thought. I’ve spent my whole life slowly realizing the luxury of being born with white skin, and am continuing this process even now. From a young age my parents taught me about the harsh realities of being black and brown in America. I knew who Rodney King was by the time I was in kindergarten, but the concept of privilege is something that can be hard for a child to wrap their head around. My real awakening didn’t come until I started to show an interest in clothing and fashion. Being the supportive person she is, my mother indulged my interest by taking me to stores all across LA that I had no business being in at that age, which is where I really started to take notice of the systemic bias built into our society. I felt the eyes watching us as we browsed department stores in Pasadena, I watched helplessly and angrily as employees at the Grove refused to even acknowledge my mom. It broke my heart to see a woman I admired so much be treated like dirt, and when I asked my mother about it she had a million more examples of the ways she has been ignored and mistreated because of the color of her skin. She remembered the way people in the crowd rushed to the aid of a blonde woman at a hockey game after a stray puck hit my pregnant mother and rebounded onto the other woman. She remembered going to a family friend’s house for Christmas and hearing this “friend” exclaim “look she got a little beaner” as his daughter opened her Christmas present to reveal a brown doll. She remembered all these things that white people don’t have to think about, because these things don’t happen all the time when you have white skin. That is privilege.
Privilege is not having people follow you around while you’re shopping. Privilege is wearing any color you’d like because no one will think you’re in a gang. It’s bringing an assault rifle to a protest without having to think about repercussions. It’s going for a run at night without fearing for your life. It is all of these things and more, so the bare minimum we can do as White people is acknowledge this privilege and use it to help our POC friends. Most importantly, we as White people need to educate ourselves and unlearn everything about US history that we were taught as children. Three books that radically changed my views are the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lies My Teacher Taught Me, and The New Jim Crow. I truly believe that everyone would be better off if they read these books, but they are just the tip of the iceberg! There is a rich world of literature out there written by People of Color that has never been taught in our school system, when these writings have just as much merit as those of Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and the like. Educating yourself is a lifelong process, and I encourage everyone to use every resource they can to keep learning. Please bear in mind that educating yourself is the first step in becoming a true ally. If you are interested in learning more, Patia’s Fantasy World has cultivated an extremely thorough resource that includes lists of charities to donate to, Black-owned businesses you can support, PDFs of relevant books by black writers, and even mental health resources.
If you've made it this far I urge you to take advantage of every resource you have to help dismantle the current racist system we live in. If you are in a position of power, use it to amplify black voices as much as you can. Hire Black people to write for you, model your clothes, shoot photos, anything! It is imperative that in this day and age we are not only un-racist but ANTI-racist. We cannot tolerate racism of any form in our lives anymore, we must eradicate it completely instead of letting it fester quietly as we have been for years and years.
Black Lives Matter.
I'm not big on social media; I spent the last few weeks checking in on friends and family. When I put my daughter down for a nap the other day, I felt like piecing some songs together that displayed the range of emotions I was feeling. Sometimes music is the best way for me to process what's going on. I’m vocal with how I feel and never had a problem speaking my mind to fight for what’s right. I have a kid now, and that has helped me think about the bigger picture. I want her to know that she represents minorities and she has all the power to make a difference.
The week after George Floyd was killed, I felt so many emotions - but the one that continues to haunt me was probably shame. Naturally, I felt rage: another Black man had his life forcibly and unjustly taken by police. I also felt grief, as it was another opportunity for someone’s life to be posthumously put on trial as though that somehow made his death less significant. But alongside the rage and the grief, I was overcome with a deep-seeded discomfort.
This pit in my stomach was rooted first and foremost in the shame that Blacks are still viewed in this country as second-class citizens. I hear many say that there is nothing to talk about because we all have “equal rights” but the reality is that the vestiges of slavery, Black codes, Jim Crow, and segregation still uphold systems that protect the interests of Whites. The roots of slavery are deep and continue to strangle equity in educational systems, real estate, health care, job markets, and - as we have all seen clearly - policing. I felt despondent seeing our country continue to fail our Black brothers and sisters over and over again.
I also felt shame when I thought about my Black friends. I had a few close ones who I wanted to reach out to initially, but I held back at first knowing they were probably dealing with tons of people coming out of the woodwork to “check in” and “see if they were doing ok.” Truth be told, that’s what I wanted to do too. They weren’t tokens, they were people who I loved and cared for, but it was still difficult. I didn’t have the words to say to tell them I was sorry yet again. I didn’t know how to let them know that I cared, and that I was here for them if they needed anything. I wasn’t sure how to tell them that their life mattered in a way that was heartfelt and not brought up just because another Black snuff film got posted for the entire world to see. It took me a while to reach out, and even when I did, I still stumbled over my words. How do you ask a friend if he’s good when you know that once again, his fears of still being seen as 3/5 human by this nation are confirmed?
In talking about how I was processing things with a few friends, I realized that even sharing my emotions brought about shame. In this time that Black brothers and sisters are hurting so deeply, why was I thinking about myself? Why was my concern for getting it right such a source of stress - was I losing focus or centering myself? Two friends shared thoughts that I am still thinking about. The first said, “No one is actually trying if they don’t get some criticism or have some self-doubt. It’s just about how you react to it.” And the other said: “You can’t spell ally without two L’s - so along the way, just be prepared to hold a few.”
I am sharing my experience to encourage everyone who is struggling to find a way to be of help. We cannot be afraid of the discomfort we feel over the reality that we live in a nation that declared “all men are created equal” but turns a blind eye to this truth each day. The Hebrew word “shalom” refers to a place of wholeness, prosperity, peace, welfare, and tranquility; I am convinced that the shame we feel over declaration versus reality when it comes to race is due to the disconnect between knowing how things should be compared to the way things actually are.
The work is uncomfortable, and feelings of shame over our own insufficiency or past inaction are inevitable. The sooner we can move past that discomfort and set our eyes on the difficult work that remains, the better. Because there is so much left to do.